How to Survive a Plunge Into Whitewater Rapids

An American mountain biker narrowly avoided drowning when he took a spill trying to cross a rushing river. Here’s what he did right.

Dec 22, 2015
Outside Magazine
How to Survive a Plunge Into Whitewater Rapids

Mark Lyons was crossing a stream during a mountain bike race when he slipped into whitewater rapids.    Photo: Gibsonpictures/iStock

Mark Lyons was several hours into one of the toughest mountain bike races in the world in November when he found himself at a river crossing, alone, and had to hop off his bike and hoist it to his shoulder and attempt to hike across. The 55-year-old American cyclist was competing in Costa Rica’s grueling Ruta de los Conquistadores, a 67-mile cross-country race through jungle and around active volcanoes. As he carefully strode into the stream, he lost his footing and slipped into the rushing water.

At first, Lyons held onto his bike. He thought he would slip down to a slow moving area, pull himself out and continue the race. But it wasn’t so simple. The water was moving so fast that it ripped Lyons’ shoes from his feet. “I didn’t expect to keep picking up speed the way I did,” Lyons says.

Lyons eventually let go of his bike, flattened himself on the water and stuck his feet out in front of him to defend against rocks and boulders. Every so often his feet would hit one, sending him spinning. For about ten minutes, the river carried him, continuously pulling him under the rushing water. “That was the only time I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it,” Lyons says. “I would go down for long time and then I would feel air on my face, take a breath and get pulled down again."

Lyons had limited experience with whitewater. Still, he managed to do some of the most important things to avoid drowning, says Isaac Ingram, the deputy director of the American River Touring Association and a 15-year rafting guide. “The most dangerous thing that he could have done would have been to try to stand up when he was going down the river,” Ingram says. “Being as exhausted as he was from the bike race, it would have been easy for him to let his feet drop to try to get out." 

According to Ingram, Lyons got into what is known as the passive swimming position, the recommended technique for surviving a fall into whitewater. Keeping his feet in front of him, Lyons was able to kick off rocks and avoid getting caught on an underwater obstacle. Entrapment, says Ingram, is the most important thing to avoid in rapids. 

To make it to shore, Lyons would have needed to turn over onto his belly and begin swimming perpendicular to the current, Ingram says. But about a mile downstream Lyons got lucky. A bend in the river allowed him to drift toward a log wedged between two rocks, use it to brake himself, and then climb out of the river. But even on land, Lyons’ situation wasn’t much better: he was alone, deep in a tropical rain forest, and no one had seen him fall. For the next 30 hours, he fought his way, barefoot, through the jungle, subsisting on spring water and sports drink powder. 

“Clearly he is a survivor,” Ingram says.

By the time Lyons hiked back to the racetrack the next day, his liver and kidneys were near failure. Lyons spent six days in the hospital recuperating, which is when his ordeal finally set in, he says. “Once I was in the hospital I realized how lucky I was."

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